The Outer Banks (also known as the OBX) are more than just vacation rentals, expansive beachfront and Atlantic Ocean views (but trust me, the beaches and ocean views are worth the visit). Spanning almost the entire coast of North Carolina, the 200-mile string of barrier islands are home to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, aquatic plant and animal life, wild horses, The Roanoke Colony (also known as The Lost Colony, one of America’s first settlements and most intriguing, unsolved mysteries, aviation (the Wright Brothers took their first flight in Kill Devil Hills on December 17, 1903), pirates (including Blackbeard, Ocracoke Inlet was the famed pirate’s favorite anchorage), and tons of fabulous places to stay, delicious food to eat, and plenty of fun things to do!
AJ and I are on vacation in Florida for the next week. While we were hitting the beach and soaking up the sun in the Florida Keys, it only made sense that I would take y’all on a beach adventure too!
The Outer Banks is one of my favorite places to visit. My family has been taking our annual summer vacation there since I was a baby. (so now for 30 years!) The Outer Banks is a fun and special place for us; our beach house was always filled with family, cold beer and laughter. My cousins, sister and I would spend our days boogie boarding, building sand castles, and searching for sea shells, only to be ushered inside by the sinking sun and the promise of ice cream after dinner. As I grew older, our annual trip to the Outer Banks was one I wouldn’t miss, even if that meant spending the week before the bar exam writing essays in the early morning on a beach house dresser and repeating my flash cards to myself on afternoon beach walks. The Outer Banks means so much to us that my husband and I planned our wedding there (although Hurricane Matthew had other plans).
A few years ago, I shared some of my favorite Outer Banks’ restaurants and activities on my friend Susannah’s blog as part of her Hidden Gems series: a collaboration of posts from bloggers around the world who wrote about the places and cities they loved. Since it’s been a few years, I wanted to update by Outer Banks travel guide and share a place that is so special to me with my readers. So today, we’re beach bound! Can you feel the sand between your toes and smell the salt in the air?
Where to stay at the Outer Banks
Take advantage of the barrier island benefits and stay just steps from the ocean in one of the Outer Banks’ beach front hotels and resorts. The Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk has a prime location on the the Beach Road (Virginia Dare Trail) with oceanfront rooms, a fishing pier, and access to a lot of great restaurants and shops in Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills. Another great beachfront option is the Sanderling Resort in Duck, offering hotel oceanfront rooms, beach house rentals, beach and sound access, a full service spa and several restaurants on site (fun fact: when Al Roker from the Today Show comes to the Outer Banks to report on hurricanes, he stays at Sanderling).
If you’re planning on staying at the Outer Banks for more than a few days and would prefer to spread out a bit more rather than be confined to a hotel room, I highly suggest you book a vacation rental home through one of the many Outer Banks rental agencies or a service like AirBNB. There are tons of options to choose from so you’re sure to find something to suite your needs depending on your budget and location.
Opt to “rough it” and set up camp at one of the many campsites on the Outer Banks. Over the past few years, AJ and I have taken advantage of the campsites available on Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Camping has given me a greater appreciation for the beauty and wildlife and has given me a new perspective on the Outer Banks . Camping is an affordable and fun way to enjoy the Outer Banks.
What to eat and drink at the Outer Banks
Every time we come to the beach, fresh seafood is on the menu. Dinner at Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar is a family tradition that spans over a decade; it goes back to when my parents asked a local 15 or so years ago for a good, low key place to grab some seafood for dinner and he directed them to Awful Arthur’s. The wait in the summer can get long, but head to the ocean view lounge for a cocktail and some fresh oysters with tabasco and horseradish.
Duck Deli is a Duck institution. They offer a variety sandwiches and deli staples, as well as excellent Eastern North Carolina (vinegar based) barbecue. It’s a tiny place that gets overrun with tourists at lunch and dinner time, so the best time to go is mid afternoon after a long morning on the beach.
Ocean Boulevard Bistro and Martini Bar has brought fine dining to the beach (it’s my mom and my new favorite spot for a glass of pinot and a delicious meal)! Ocean Boulevard serves up regional food (fresh caught fish and locally grown produce) with a global flair. Their menu changes seasonally depending on what’s local and available. They also have an extensive wine list, tasty (and strong) martinis and live music on the patio in the summer.
With the thrashing Atlantic in your backyard, there’s no way you can go a week without the basics. Dockside ‘n Duck has all of your fresh seafood needs to cook up at home–steamed shrimp (in Old Bay, of course!), fresh mussels, oysters, clams, lobsters, and all the fresh fish you can dream of. A blue crab feast at our beach house is an annual vacation tradition, and Dockside provides the crabs and hammers, so all we have to do is get crackin’!
Rundown Cafe is a family friendly, casual joint in Kitty Hawk with an eclectic menu inspired by travels to the Caribbean and Pacific Rim. A traditional Jamaican soup of fish, coconut milk, onions, tomatoes and yams gave Rundown its name 20 years ago and is still featured first on the menu.
Boasting three small tables, a few benches, and a never ending line in the summer, a visit to Sunset Ice Cream, a locally owned ice cream and coffee shop is a summer must. Waiting in line brings back memories of family beach vacations with our cousins (our parents would just shut us up with the sticky, sweet ice cream that often melted down my hands and stained my t shirts). Our family makes sure to stop at least once (usually several times) for a scoop or a milkshake and to catch the sunset.
For local brews and tasty pub fare, head to Outer Banks Brewing Station. Outer Banks Brewing Station is also America’s first wind powered brewery.
Don’t let the line deter you; the folks at Uncle Eddy’s Frozen Custard get through it quick and the authentic frozen custard is worth the wait. Take the time to check our their impressive shell collection and shell art, and decide if you’re going to get a cone, a Hurricane Eddy or a sundae.
Collington Cafe is an Outer Banks institution, where they’ve been serving local food with a gourmet touch to locals and visitors for over 24 years. I love Collington Cafe’s location and space; it’s tucked away from the beach in an old, Victorian Home surrounded by the shade of gorgeous oak trees.
Sneak out of the sun and sidle up to Coastal Provisions’ bar for a cold beer (they have knowledgeable bartenders, rotating local drafts, and offer flights if you can’t pick just one) and some fresh oysters. Go all out with an order of fish tacos (the sesame tuna tacos are one point) and then grab some necessities (crab cakes, fresh seafood, clam chowder, a six pack and a bottle of wine) for a feast later at home.
Grab a cup of coffee and a breakfast treat and it enjoy it on Orange Blossom Bakery and Cafe’s front porch (maybe Bandit the kitten will stop by and say hi). They’re famous for their Apple Uglies (a creative creation made with leftover donut dough and apples and deep fried like a fritter), and for a good reason (calories don’t count on vacation!!). If you’re not in the mood for a sweet treat, they have excellent bagel sandwiches.
The Dancing Turtle Coffee Shop is perched at the very end of Hatteras Island, right across the ferry to Ocracoke. Get up early and wake up with a cup of the Coconut Crunch coffee (it’s their best seller and the hint of coconut is incredible) and then head straight for the beach for some sipping and strolling.
Of famous franchise donuts fame, Duck Donuts opened their first shop in the Outer Banks. Lines are out the doors in the summer, but the freshly made donuts are totally worth the wait.
Satisfy all of your beverage and t-shirt souvenir needs without having to leave your car. Brew Thru is a drive-through convenience store; pull in and pick your poison from the floor to ceiling coolers on either side of your car. Don’t leave without a Brew Thru t-shirt; they’ve been coming out with a new design annually since 1977.
AJ is a bit of a fish taco connoisseur and has deemed Top Dog Cafe’s fish tacos the best on the Outer Banks. Besides great fish tacos, I love their casual atmosphere, whimsical decor and screened porch.
Pick up a latte and a beach book at Duck’s Cottage Coffee and Bookshop. Duck’s Cottage has the perfect cozy coffee shop feel and a beach book to satisfy any mood. If you’re not sure what you want to read, spend some time perusing their shelves and be on the look out for little signs pointing out bestsellers and staff recommendations.
If you’re looking for a spectacular sunset with a side of fresh seafood, Miller’s Waterfront Restaurant is the spot for you. Enjoy a cocktail on their sound side deck while listening to a steel drum band and watching the sun sink behind the horizon.
Another great sunset dining option is AQUA in Duck, where you can enjoy a meal made with seasonal, local ingredients and fresh caught fish sound side.
Tortugas Lie is a local’s hangout in Nags Head with Caribbean inspired beach fare and ice cold margaritas (made with fresh squeezed orange juice). Go for the fish tacos and Hatteras style chowder (clear broth style clam chowder), stay for the people watching and friendly conversation.
If you’re coming to the Outer Banks from the North, you’ll probably be hungry at some point on your drive, so make sure you stop in at Currituck BBQ on the side of Highway 158 in Coinjock, NC. They serve up one of the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, and have plenty of sauces for sale for you to take home with you!
What to do at the Outer Banks
Put on your suit and your sunnies, grab a towel, chair, boogie board and good book and hit the beach. The Outer Banks is known for it’s beautiful beaches; which are dotted with beach umbrellas in the summer. Spend the day in the sun, take a dip in the ocean, and comb the beach for seashells and other treasures. If you’re looking for something less crowded, head to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where rolling dunes and sea oats separate the coastal highway from the expansive Atlantic.
Cast a line from the shore, try your luck off a pier (check out Avalon Pier, Jennette’s Pier or Rodanthe Pier) or book a deep sea fishing adventure to get the day’s freshest catch. Make sure you have a license; short term coastal fishing licenses start at 10 dollars.
Enjoy the view from the top at one of the Outer Banks five lighthouses. These beacons guided mariners and travelers for centuries, and now many are open for climbing (and even those that aren’t are interesting to visit to see their beauty and learn their history).
A round of mini golf is perfect for children (or bringing out your inner child). Work on your par with the dinosaurs at Jurassic Putt or go on an adventure searching for gold and diamonds at Lost Treasure Mini Golf.
Soak up some history and drama along with your rays at a performance of The Lost Colony. This annual summer spectacular showcases the dramatic and mysterious story of the Roanoke Colony, one of the earliest settlements in the United States.
The Atlantic Ocean is the best kind of playground. Rent a stand up paddle board and surf the waves; boogie board your way to the beach; let the wind fill your sails on a kiteboard; or paddle into the surf in an ocean kayak. If you prefer calmer waters, check out the water sports soundside–parasail high in the clouds; pick up the pace with a jet ski, or go on a kayak eco tour. The Outer Banks offers tons of outfitters and rentals for all of your watersports needs; check out Ocean Atlantic Rentals and Kitty Hawk Kites.
Visit the largest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States. There are a multitude of activities to enjoy at Jockey’s Ridge including hiking, sandboarding, and hang gliding. Pro tip: avoid Jockey’s Ridge in the middle of a summer day; hot sand and no shade is not a pleasing combination.
Stand in the place where the Wright Brothers’ first took flight in 1903. Visit the birthplace of aviation in Kill Devil Hills and stop by the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial to learn about Orville and Wilbur’s life, gliding experiments and dreams of flying.
Seeing the wild horses is a treat of any Outer Banks visit. The wild mustangs’ origins date back nearly 500 years, making them the earliest settlers of the Outer Banks. The horses travel in small herds and can be seen in the Corolla and Carova area in the Northern Outer Banks. Spotting the horses usually requires driving on the beach, so 4 wheel drive is definitely recommended. Take your shot and plan your own adventure, or book through an experienced guide (my aunt and sister recommend Corolla Jeep Adventures).